Hair: The Tales and Fables of our Follicles

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In light of all the talk about the politics of Black hair and Chris Rock’s Good Hair documentary, Newsweek dedicated a whole week in October to what they coined “A Week of Follicular Coverage.” To launch the series they wrote:

As personal as our hair is, it’s also the subject of some very public and political discussions. Heather Barnes, a documentary filmmaker, chronicled the complicated relationship women have with their hair in her film Hair Stories. Her blog of the same name further explores the way that hair is not just a fashion statement but something much more complex: A woman in Canada loses her job after shaving her head for charity. A preschool student with dreadlocks is threatened with expulsion. Older women are taken to task for wearing their hair too long – a statement deemed “too sexy” for women over a certain age.

In the opening article, Janet Jakobsen, Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, says that hair is one way we “communicate things that are fundamentally meaningful for us. It’s not just ‘I dye my hair because I want to look youthful,’ but larger symbolic issues about how you view society and social meaning.”

If you dye your hair, you care about looking youthful. If you dye it badly, you care too much: it’s pathetic and unbecoming. If you don’t dye it at all, you’ve given up – or are treated as much older than you actually are.

What many choose to do with their hair is also a way of rejecting or embracing rigidly defined beauty standards, which are based on perceptions, generalizations, even stereotypes. As a redhead I can attest to being considered by some men as a sex fiend, or as having a fiery disposition. I’ve always considered these simplifications as sort of funny. When asked whether my carpet matches my drapes, I respond with, “You’ll never find out.” Luckily I have yet to be called a fire crotch. And if I ever am, I will say with grace, “I resemble that remark.”

Now that I’m in my late 30s, I have light auburn hair that my nephew says is orange, like fire. This wasn’t so the first half of my life. Growing up, my hair was my crowning glory. The seeds of my pride grew from the roots of the deep auburn stems sprouting from my head. As a kid, in the right light, my hair cast a vibrant, almost magical, sheen of purple.

“Where did she get such beautiful hair?” a gray haired elderly woman once asked as she hobbled past my mom, who politely held the elevator door open. This comment irritated my mom to no end, not just because we heard it so often, but because she once had red hair too. Only hers was a quieter, less important red, which retired upon giving birth to me. When asked, my mom never answered the annoying origin of beautiful hair question. She just smiled obligingly and hurried me along.

Because red hair is a genetic mutation it occurs in only four percent of the population. Redheads are found among all people, including Africans, Middle Easterners, and Japanese. Because redheads are so rare it’s often assumed that the color is fake, impossible, or mystical. The last time I was in Mexico City a handful of school kids curiously pointed at me, as if I was something they had never seen. I smiled, mostly because in Los Angeles no one cares to notice me for my hair anymore. They assume I dye it. The Newsweek piece points out:

Because we can change it, the way our hair looks is viewed as a choice we make – to wear it conservatively, to dye it green, to cut it short or grow it long in defiance of what societal standards are. That choice helps others decide what they think about us and who we are. So because our hair is always, always saying something, it’s often difficult to ignore it.

I confess I do use a color-tinted conditioner sometimes. But what does this occasional “tinting” really say about me? All I know is that my red hair made me feel special as a child and still does to this day, and maybe that’s why I try to preserve it. As a kid, Dieda, my Mexican grandfather, always gave me a little extra Domingo, or allowance, and told me not to tell my sister or cousins. Even then, I understood he did this because I was fair, with blue eyes, and most importantly, a redhead. I was special for how I looked. Not like the others.

At age 13, I was diagnosed with Lupus. My fair skin and red hair alienated me from a friendship with the sun that I had longed for my whole life. If my Irish complexion wasn’t the enemy of the sun, the Lupus sure was. For me the disease went from mild to nearly deadly as a result of a bad sunburn. Lupus in most cases is triggered or exacerbated by exposure to the sun. It is best described as your immune system going haywire, attacking its own organs thinking they are foreign. Slowly, my kidneys began to fail.

In order to stop the disease’s relentless assault on my body’s organs, I got chemotherapy and high doses of steroids, among other toxic immune suppressing treatments. I probably experienced a higher than average level of physical discomfort during these treatments, as researchers have found that people with red hair experience more pain and require greater amounts of anesthetic. When I was 14, my copper locks began to slowly shed. When I woke up one morning with a handful of hair on my pillow, my mom and I went out and bought a red wig just in case it all fell out. I was terrified. I was about to enter high school and I couldn’t bare the thought of wearing a blatantly fake wig on my first day (a human red haired wig was not an option at the time). Luckily, I never needed the wig as my mom gave me her kidney for a life saving kidney transplant which, in addition to medications, hushed the Lupus to a whisper.

As a child, my dad took me to a memorial plaque in Mexico City that honored a battalion of Irish deserters from the U.S. army who fought during the Mexican-American war. I fantasized that I was a descendant of these brave redheaded men who must have made wives of beautiful raven haired Mexican women. For years I decided that this was my story, and obviously the only explanation for how I could be a redheaded Mexican. I fantasized about these mercenaries’ stories of forbidden love, war and wonder that could have been torn from the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. It was the Lupus, however, that proved to me what my hair couldn’t. I learned that Lupus strikes mostly females who are Black and Latina. So while I looked Irish with my red hair, the Lupus was evidence that I was also truly Mexican.

As I wrote in my blog entry The Curious Case of the Ambiguously Mexican Redhead, I knew I was Mexican but was constantly confronted by the prejudice of others who were sure I was Spanish and not Mexican (for that meant dirty, lazy, etc.). I’ve spent most of my life braiding together a messy, complicated identity I can finally own. My hair tells many stories. Some absolutely true and some loosely combed together by childhood observations, impressions and fantasies.

It has been years since I got the awestruck origin of hair question and so I care less about the beauty and appearance of my hair. This isn’t to say I’m not deeply proud of my locks, for my hair speaks of my life, and both my Mexican and Irish roots. I don’t know if I will officially color my hair as I age. Maybe I won’t need a physical reminder of who I truly am. My words and memories will be enough.

Related content:

Hair Manifesto

The Curious Case of the Ambiguously Mexican Red Head

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